A Closer Look At: The Big Parade (1925)
In 1928, the great star John Gilbert wrote in an article for Photoplay: “Have any of you ever gone through an experience at school, or at college, or while in love, or while on a farm, or in the mountains, or exploring, or on a boat, or somewhere which has been so filled with happiness and work and harmony and well directed effort that you never hope or dream of such a thing reoccurring? If you have, you will understand just how I feel about The Big Parade. It can never happen again.” One of the biggest box office hits of the entire silent era (some sources claim it was the biggest), the World War I epic The Big Parade had a bit of everything: drama, romance, comedy, action, realism, and most of all, respect for the historical events it was trying to recreate–less than ten years after the fact.
The Big Parade was the passion project of the great director King Vidor. A mere decade earlier he and his wife Florence (who was an actress) had arrived in Hollywood practically penniless, but excited to work in a thriving new industry. Vidor’s experience as a photographer and cameraman eventually led to directing jobs, and after making a name for himself he had become an MGM director.
Mainly specializing in lower-tier romantic dramas and Christian Science-themed films at the time, Vidor was longing to make something truly great. He took the possibilities of the motion picture very seriously, even publishing a manifesto of sorts in 1920 stating:
“I believe in the motion picture that carries a message to humanity.
“I believe in the picture that will help humanity to free itself from the shackles of fear and suffering that have so long bound it in chains.
“I will not knowingly produce a picture that contains anything that I do not believe to be absolutely true to human nature, anything that could injure anyone or anything unclean in thought or action.”
While discussing ideas with MGM producer Irving Thalberg, Vidor suggested making a war film. He wanted it to be from the viewpoint of common soldiers, feeling too many earlier war films had revolved around “officers in their shiny boots and tailored uniforms”. Thalberg recommended he work with writer Laurence Stallings, one of the authors of the Broadway play What Price Glory? and a WWI veteran. The result was an intimate story of ordinary people, without the usual villainous Huns and idealized heroes that abounded in propaganda films from the war era itself.
Thalberg decreed that the lead actor would be matinee idol John Gilbert, who was happy for the chance to stretch his acting skills. Vidor wasn’t enthralled at first, since he’d worked with Gilbert before and frequently clashed with him on set. But any old resentments quickly disappeared once the new picture was underway. Vidor would later marvel at how in tune he and Gilbert became: “Gilbert never read the script of The Big Parade, and there were other actors of the period like that. They had faith and confidence in you…I actually remember moments when I didn’t say a thing. I’d just have a quick thought and Gilbert would react to it.”
French actress Renée Adorée played Melisande, the love interest of Gilbert’s Jim Apperson. The two were already well-matched, having been in three prior films together. Adorée was quick to improvise and offer suggestions on “bits of business,” as the saying went. Gilbert fondly recalled their scene where Jim gives Melisande some chewing gum: “Only a suggestion was offered in the script, and no one really knew what would happen. Cameras started and away we went. Minute after minute; impromptu; inspired; both Renee and me, guided by some unseen power, expressing beauty.”
Vidor was determined to make the film feel authentic, drawing on his own experiences attending a military academy and the Hollywood Officers’ Training Camp. He obsessively watched hours of Signal Corps footage and had two WWI vets act as advisors. Veterans were also recruited to serve as extras–no doubt a rather surreal experience for them. Huge quantities of explosives were used for the battle scenes, giving them a gritty, frightening realism.
The craving for authenticity was balanced by Vidor’s belief that some artistry should be allowed in period pictures. For instance, the slow pace of the harrowing Belleau Wood sequence was inspired by footage of soldiers carrying a flag-draped coffin. Vidor recorded the pacing with a metronome and had a drummer play it on location. Vidor recalled some of the extras “wondered what the hell I was up to. One of them, an Englishman, asked if he was in some bloody ballet.” The result is arguably one of those most memorable sequences in silent cinema.
It’s rivaled by two other iconic battlefield
scenes. One shows Jim, shot in the leg during a battle, crawling into a shell
hole and finding a mortally wounded German soldier. The soldier asks for a
cigarette and Jim obliges. Soon he looks over to see the German has died, and
taking the still-lit cigarette, he finishes it himself. In the other scene, Jim
is tormented by his orders to stay put in a shell hole while his friend is in
danger. He finally rages: “Waiting! Orders! Mud! Stinking stiffs! What the hell
do we get out of this war anyway!” Depicting this kind of anger would never
have flown during the WWI era itself, but just enough time had passed for it to
be allowable–and in retrospect, understandable.
While it didn’t flinch away from portraying the tragedies of the war, The Big Parade did have plenty of heart and touches of light comedy. Veterans who went to screenings got kicks out of the details of life in training and in the camps, which a writer from The Outlook described warmly: “Little touches–even to the cow stable–the haymow and manure pile thereof! It made me ache to see those buddies getting it off their shoes. As for the company mess–well, you could actually smell those beans and that amazing coffee, so useful in getting gravy or grease off your mess kit…”
The passion that went into making The Big Parade was repaid many times over. It would be MGM’s biggest success until Gone With the Wind (1939), and a milestone in 1920s popular culture. Happily, it survives in excellent quality, waiting for anyone curious to see the film that moved John Gilbert to write: “No reward will ever be so great as having been a part of The Big Parade. It was the highpoint of my career. All that has followed is balderdash.”
Most of the quotes are from Kevin Brownlow’s amazing book The War, the West, and the Wilderness – highly recommended reading. Additional Gilbert quotes were from the September 1928 article “Jack Gilbert Writes His Own Story” for Photoplay.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.